Recently, the gluten-free diet has become extremely popular. Once considered specialty items, gluten-free products are now available in most grocery stores. However, does the term "gluten-free" make something healthier? Here we will talk about what gluten is, when a gluten-free diet is needed, and its potential weaknesses.
What is gluten?
Gluten is a protein found in wheat, barley, and rye. It is commonly associated with breads, pizzas, pastas, and cereals. However, gluten can also be hidden in products such as soy sauce, supplements, some medications, and even some toothpaste.
Who needs a gluten-free diet?
Normally, gluten-free diets are only necessary for people with celiac disease or sensitivity to gluten. In a person with celiac disease, gluten triggers an immune response that can damage the small intestine. About 1% of people have celiac disease. It is found using a blood test and looking at the intestine. Wheat allergy and non-celiac gluten sensitivity (NCGS) cause similar symptoms to celiac disease, such as bloating and headache. However, only 0.1% of people have a wheat allergy and less than 5% have NCGS. If you think that you may have an allergy, gluten sensitivity, or celiac disease, contact your doctor for a diagnosis before beginning a gluten-free diet.
Is "gluten-free" healthier?
Very few people have celiac disease, NCGS, or wheat allergy, yet 21% of the population follows a gluten-free diet. Gluten-free products are marketed as healthier options, but they can be higher in fat, sugar, sodium, and calories. This is to compensate for the flavor loss and texture alteration that happens when gluten is removed. There is no evidence to suggest that a gluten-free diet is healthier for the general population. In fact, it has been shown to cause some negative effects when it is not medically necessary.
Gluten-free diets typically eliminate many whole grains. Whole grains contain the entire grain kernel along with key nutrients such as vitamins, minerals, and dietary fiber. These nutrients are stripped from grains when they are refined. Whole grains are necessary to reduce the risk of conditions like heart disease, cancer, and diabetes. Eliminating them from your diet can cause serious deficiencies. Some whole grains are naturally gluten-free and can be part of a gluten-free diet.
Regardless of its popularity, a gluten-free diet can potentially lead to nutrient deficiencies and increased calorie intake. If you do not have diagnosed celiac disease, NCGS, or a wheat allergy, eliminating gluten may not be beneficial.
Make half of your daily grains whole grains.
- Catassi, Carlo, et al. "Non-Celiac Gluten Sensitivity: The New Frontier of Gluten Related Disorders." MDPI, Multidisciplinary Digital Publishing Institute, 26 Sept. 2013, www.mdpi.com/2072-6643/5/10/3839/htm.
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- Strawbridge, Holly. "Going Gluten-Free Just Because? Here's What You Need to Know." Harvard Health Blog, 8 Jan. 2018, www.health.harvard.edu/blog/going-gluten-free-just-because-heres-what-you-need-to-know-201302205916.